Moses Sumney performs a Tiny Desk Concert on Oct. 13, 2017 (Jennifer Kerrigan/NPR)

Courtesy of Jennifer Kerrigan and NPR

Moses Sumney performs a Tiny Desk Concert on Oct. 13, 2017 (Jennifer Kerrigan/NPR)

September 10, 2020

LU | The Consciousness of Displacement

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“Hey, after all these years

I’m still here, fingers outstretched

With your imprint in my bed

A pit so big I lay on the edge.”

White noise grows from silence to a buzz in the beginning of Moses Sumney’s “Me in 20 Years” music video. The camera spirals up and around a nighttime building facade: Scattered windows are open and lit, dots of life in a grid of inhabitance. As Sumney’s falsetto lands on the “I” of “I’m still here,” the camera stops spinning and starts moving inwards, where Sumney’s crumpled figure sits on the edge of a bed.

When I first watched this video, I was struck by how surreptitiously familiar the building facade felt. It reminded me of the apartment complex opposite my room, with irregular columns jutting out against the otherwise uniform building structure. I was also surprised by how quickly I sought to link what I saw with what I knew — how readily I wanted to take Sumney’s song and visuals and make it directly relevant for myself.

I often witness this pattern in myself: in consuming culture, I adapt, relate or apply it to how I feel and what I’m experiencing. I’m not sure if this speaks to a narcissistic ontology — of co-opting other people’s art for my own escape and healing — or if it shows a pitfall of empathy and the desire to understand others’ pain by supplanting my own experiences.

What I do know is that, regarding these questions, in the past few weeks “Me in 20 Years” has become my soundtrack of longing and loneliness as I packed up my five months of home life and prepared to return to Ithaca.

Though I had listened to græ when it was first released, I was initially more drawn to the first part. The gravitational force of the second part, namely “Me in 20 Years,” didn’t hit me until I saw Sumney perform it in his Tiny Desk (Home) Concert. Perhaps it was the timing — the accumulated dread of moving and starting a new semester was at a peak — or Sumney’s even rawer live voice that gripped me and simply refused to let go.

I’ve reluctantly realized that relative nomadicity seems to be a part of college life. Just when I settle into one place enough to call it home, it’s time to move to a new dorm, a new apartment, a new city. As I lay awake in a new bed in the corner of a new room, I often find myself thinking of the last place, longing for its established comfort.

“I wonder how I’ll sleep at night

With a cavity by my side

And nothing left to hold but pride, will I

Hold out for more time?”

My cavity is rootlessness — wanting to belong but feeling swept between landscapes and people and rhythms and routines of life. But the emptiness that comes with seasonal migration — from home to school and back again — haunts me with another transition: a shifting between cultural worlds. Home is for my Chinese-American self; school for my Chinese-American. It’s been years of this dialectic, yet stepping out of one shell and into another feels less like molting and more like an absurd game of dress-up.

I wonder why my sense of self is so contained, why I attempt to cube it into neat portions like my mother does raw chicken. If I didn’t link certain aspects of myself to Ithaca, packing up those parts of me when I leave for the home I grew up in and vice versa, would my cavity no longer be rootlessness and instead be something else, like love or loneliness?

“Is it laced within my DNA

To be braced in endless January

Have I become the cavity I feared?

Ask me in twenty years”

Before Sumney can sing “ask me in 20 years,” he’s subsumed by the silhouette-shaped cavity on his bed and the camera begins to zoom out, exiting his room, continuing to zoom out until his room is but a dim frame in a building full of dark and light squares.

In 20 years, I’ll be twice my current age. Maybe by then I’ll have a different cavity, or have become my cavity, or have been so filled by life that I no longer dwell on cavities. Maybe by then I’ll have decided that a valid interpretation of music and other forms of culture means not interpreting it through the lens of my personal current moment. But for now, I’m content with wading through the mire of trying to understand — rather than fall subject to — my cavities and the opening of vulnerability and possibility they leave in me.

Cecilia Lu is a junior in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning. She can be reached at zcl5@cornell.edu. Breathing Room runs alternate Thursdays this semester.